Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Honestly, I could mostly leave 'em. Not that some myths don't have their entertainment value. And some can be inspiring because they capture a truth about the human spirit. Myth as art I can live with.

But I am thinking of the harm that historical myths do. Many of these myths prosper in the face of plenty of evidence to contradict them. You could say their purpose is to live long and prosper just to make sure we never see the evidence.

I am going to quickly mention two myths here (they are related) and without going over all the evidence, I will mention just enough to dispel them. But I am not forgetting that myths have an emotional appeal and that will continue to blind us to the evidence.

The first myth is that Israel was a tribal religion that was created for one tiny people and did not reach beyond itself. The myth is that God made a promise to Abraham and the covenant would be with this one people. But if one pays careful attention to the Torah and the history of the Jewish people, you will notice a couple of things.

Moses announces one day to the people that today is the day that God enacts his covenant with you, today it becomes official (Deut 29:10-12). But Moses actually spells out who he means by 'you'. He gives a list of the tribal heads, elders, the men, women, children, and ends the list with the ger -- Hebrew for the immigrant, the foreigner, the stranger. So God's covenant was not exclusively with the Israelites, but also with all the non-Israelites among them.

That is important. Israel always had a universal vision. The history of Jewish culture that followed was always to be open to the gentiles who had an interest in the culture. Gentiles were not even required to fully convert to Judaism. Half-way Jews were okay. They were called God-fearers, but some scholars today prefer to call them gentile sympathizers. It should also be noted that Israel never saw its mission as to go out and convert everyone to Judaism. And just because universal conversion was never the goal, Judaism was labeled a narrow, ethnic, tribal religion, whereas in reality, it was always a universal religion that acknowledged the existence of gentiles and God's blessing on them.

The second myth concerns Paul. He took conversion much further than his fellow Jews ever did. He was intent on converting everyone. His mission was called a mission to the gentiles and people imagine what? I'm not sure. I think they believe he went out and collared every gentile he could find and told them about Christ Jesus, the Jewish Messiah. Maybe he even went out to pagan temples and pagan community centers.

But that's nonsense. He preached in synagogues to fellow Jews and to those gentile sympathizers who stayed close to Judaism. He was building on a long cultural tradition in Judaism. Gentiles or pagans attended these synagogues. That's where Paul found his first audience. Had Israel never been a universal religion, welcoming to gentiles, Paul would have gotten absolutely nowhere. The early successes of the Jesus movement are proof that Israel was never the exclusivist tribal religion that so many people still think it was.

Both these myths have managed to erase all the very obvious evidence that contradicts them. In history, I will take evidence over myth any day. And the evidence about the historical Jesus also presents challenges to certain myths that have been used to erase the evidence.

Leon Zitzer

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